We take a look inside the private domains of the most unlikely game devotees—academics, musicians, writers—proof that everyone and anyone can be a gamer.
Video games may have once been considered a useless hobby, placed in the same category as things like comic books and cartoons. Now, everyone plays games, and everyone is a gamer. Your mom playing Dots on her phone is a gamer. That precocious four-year-old blazing through Super Mario on her 3DS is a gamer. So are your teachers who play Words with Friends and your cousin who plays the weekly Nightfall Strike on Destiny. If you're reading this, you're probably a gamer, since about 155 million people in the US play video games regularly.
This is all to say that "gamer" isn't so much a demographic anymore as it is a description. So for our look at gamers' personal spaces, we chose people—a photographer, academics, musicians, programmers—who've incorporated gaming seamlessly into their adult lives.
Nathan Bajar, 24, photographer:
VICE: What game are you playing the most right now?
I've started getting into playing Super Smash Bros more competitively. I go to this place, Action Burger, on Mondays. It's really nice, and there's always someone to play with. I have my console setup back in Jersey, so it's nice to have a place to play here in the city. I mostly play as Mario and Corrin. Can I show you one of my most prized possessions?
I got this Pikachu card from one of my oldest friends. He had it signed for me by the voice of Ash. It's pretty sweet. Oh, and the shiny Charizard. From that same friend. One day we were playing Pokemon in my parents' room with my cousin. He always had the coolest cards, and so he surprised us with this shining Charizard. We play really dramatically too, with an emphasis on playing the cards. So it was like POW shining Charizard. And I was like, "Dude, I fucking need that card," and he gave it to me.
What was you first memory playing a game?
My older cousin had a Nintendo, and we played it at his house. The first game was Street Fighter, and I begged my parents to get me one. But they got me a SEGA Genesis. I played that Power Rangers game, and this weird game called Tinhead, but Pokemon's pretty prominent in my life.
Do you still play games back home in Jersey?
My room back at home is always the gaming den. When we have these big parties with like sixty of my cousins and family, all the kids come into my room, and we play card games and fighting games. Fighting games are really important to me—they're something I hold dear to my heart.
Do you play with your girlfriend?
Yeah! She's a big gamer too. But she lives in DC. So most of the time we just FaceTime each other while we're playing games.
Mike McKeever, 27, Musician:
One thing I remember for sure is that video games helped me learn how to read. When I got my tonsils out in kindergarten, I got my first Game Boy, and it came with a Zelda game, Link's Awakening. It was sort of above my reading level, so I was always trying to figure words out. I didn't know what "woozy" meant, so I went to my dad and was like, "What does that mean?"
What's the first video game sound you used in a song?
Probably the harp sound from FFIV, which might have also been used in some of the Zelda games. With the older versions (like the one from III), when the sound of a harp is rendered in really low quality audio, there's a rawness and almost a certain kind of melancholy quality to it. This song from Mother in particular has always stuck with me. Maybe it's something about the limitations of what they had to work in that defines its aesthetic. They can't just take CD quality audio and put in it a game, like in Grand Theft Auto where you're literally hearing songs from contemporary artists. They had to work within these narrow constraints. There's something almost incomplete about it. It's not a fully rendered world. It's so limited. It's closer to an impressionist painting than a photorealist painting.
Your room has a level of neon in it that a lot of people might be uncomfortable with.
I can only take partial responsibility for this. We basically set this place up like this for a music video and just left it. But I like it. I work in here too, so it's nice sometimes to put on a track and come in here and see what it feels like. The whole setup is kinda blurred. I mean, you can't really get more bedroom producer than that. So the boundaries between dreaming, making music, playing games—it's all sort of mixed up. I have real trouble sleeping.
Eddie Cameron, 26, gaming programmer and Robert Yang, 27, teacher and game designer:
Your games are pretty sexy. Were games something you had growing up that helped you think more about sexuality?
Robert Yang: No not really. I guess maybe in the Mass Effect series I'd play a female character, so I could romance the guys, but the guys were all sorta lame. For a some time, I did want to make games about my sexuality. I was worried about being pigeonholed into being that guy who makes gay sex games. But after awhile, I just sort of thought fuck it and accepted that I was OK with being that guy. Someone's got to do it.
What game are you working on now?
Oh, this is sort of a "gaybar" game. It's loosely based off Metropolitan [in Brooklyn]. You'll play a guy at the bar, and you'll try to talk to people and eventually take them home, but most of the time they'll just reject you. You'll have a phone you can interact with, with a fake Grindr called "Musk4Musk." If a guy who you don't like is talking to you, you can just look at your phone until he notices and leaves.
As game designers, are there design features of games that you think you're more keenly aware of or might appreciate more than a regular gamer?
Robert Yang and Eddie Cameron: Balancing.
Cameron: A lot of people think, Oh, this game is too hard, or don't notice that it's the perfect level of challenge and reward. But you have no idea the amount of work that goes into balancing the gameplay.
How long have you two know each other?
Yang: Five years.
Cameron: Coming up on two years.
How did you meet?
Cameron: Oh...we.... both made Half-Life 2 mods.
Yang: We played each other's games and then met up when we were both in New York.
Pat Tarantino, 27, freelance writer specializing in healthcare:
Are you into a particular genre of games?
It's definitely changed over time. In high school, I was playing first-person shooters like Half-Life. Now I've gotten more into strategy-based games. Less pointing and shooting and more telling other people what to do. You could say I've graduated into management.
What's the longest consecutive time you've spent playing a game?
Do you know that game Fear? One time in 2008 or 2009, I had a friend who had just gotten a giant screen and had hooked Fear up to it. I played the whole thing in one sitting with a whole group of guys watching me. It must have been ten or so hours. It reminded me of the days of handing off controllers between friends and playing horror-survival games like Resident Evil.
Have you always played games in your bedroom?
It's convenience really. I like playing here because I'm not really disturbing anyone. I grew up in a one bedroom apartment with my parents, so my bedroom was also the living room where the TV happened to be. But I like keeping the consoles in the living room because they're more social. Even with the most embarrassing high fantasy scenario, our roommate will still drop in and be like, "Oh, the elves are at it again, eh?"
Narumi Iyama, 26, musician and Ryota Machida, 28, musician:
How long after meeting did you discover that you both loved video games?
Ryota Machida: It happened gradually. Before we found we were both into games, we knew we wanted to start an electronic band, but playing the keyboard on stage looks boring as fuck. So we were thinking of ways to alter that setup, and I was like, "What do you like outside of music?" Narumi was like, "I really love video games." We both grew up kind of as antisocial teenagers in Japan, so we spent a lot of time in the arcade hanging out with people who weren't even from our school. That's actually why I started getting into music.
You know the game Guitar Freaks? It's super simple, but even just holding that controller and feeling it in my hands I thought, Oh man, I wanna play guitar now . And Narumi was a huge Pop'n player, so we found a Pop'n controller with a USB outlet, and we start using it to play live.
Were you gamers before arcades became a thing?
Narumi Iyama: Yeah, my whole life. My dad was a gamer, so I had five computers, a Neo Geo, and a Super Nintendo growing up. We would use the bazooka controller. Do you remember that? I loved this game Yoshi's Safari; you play Mario riding Yoshi shooting all your enemies with this gigantic bazooka controller. We also had the Konami shooting games at home too.
During the height of your arcade days, how much time would you spend there?
Machida: Well, basically when I moved to Japan, I just stopped going to school. High school there isn't mandatory, and I figured, Well, if I don't have to go to high school I don't have to do middle school either . I always liked fighting games, but in the States, there weren't many professional fighting gamers. In Japan, there was this game called King of Fighters that was huge shit in Japan. So I met up with some pro gamers who played in tournaments and tagged along. Up to today, Capcom vs SNK 2 might be my favorite game ever. My best three characters were Dhalsim, Haohmaru, and King.
Iyama: My favorites were Sakura, Athena, and Chun-Li.
What's the most amount of time you've spent on a game?
I can play all night and all day. I think I played Tales of Eternia for two hundred hours. Same for Final Fantasy IX. I was really depressed or something, so I just put all of my time into video games.
Katherine Cross (left), 29, academic
When did you start playing PC games?
There was a time when my family was able to afford a nice computer, and so we got a Compaq Presario from PC Richards. It came pre-loaded with the original Sim City, and I just thought that was the most tremendous fun. We got that computer in '94, and I think we kept it until the year 2000.
Growing up, was gaming a part of your social identity?
Yes, but I went to a pretty nerdy high school [Bronx Science], and so gamers were in the majority. It wasn't something that I felt ashamed of or out of place for. In fact, a lot of recommendations for games came from my peers. I grew up in a working class family, and so I missed out on a lot of the games that everyone else considered rites of passage— Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy, etc.
What games did you play?
Mostly Mario and strategy games that my father thought were didactic. One early game that continues to be hugely influential is Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri. Later in school, I started getting more into the role-playing aspect of gaming. One of my first experiences doing social role playing online was in 2005 in a game called Neverwinter Nights. It was the gateway drug to World of Warcraft, which I was lost to for a couple of years.
Did you form friendships online?
Yes. Many of the strongest friendships. One of my friends even became a quasi-parent figure. We met in Neverwinter, and even though we've known each other for over a decade, I still don't know this person's legal name. But we have this important, emotionally resonant relationship.
What's the biggest consecutive bout of gaming you've had?
When I think about binges, I think about my World of Warcraft days. It's hard for me to get into a game without being willing to devote huge trenches of time to it. It's difficult to find that middle ground. There were more than a few sixteen hour days.
Has role-playing online influenced what you do professionally?
Of course. A sociology for the twenty-first century requires elaborate and extensive analysis of the virtual. It's the social space that will define human relations for this century, and likely centuries to come. So how we socialize online and develop our identities through mediation with online discourse and virtual worlds like gaming, that's incredibly fascinating to me and informs my work. Even just being a dungeon master, where you're literally creating a world and social spaces, it's that sort of thinking that requires a sociological eye.
Alex Thebez is a photographer and artist based in NYC. You can follow his work here.
Malcolm Thorndike is a writer and editor based in NYC. You can follow his work here.